Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

Poland Leads a New Struggle for Freedom

WARSAW, Feb 14 2012 (IPS) - Last weekend saw tens of thousands of people across Europe taking to the streets in protest against the international treaty to enforce intellectual property rights. European politicians are gradually distancing themselves from the treaty, largely as a result of citizen mobilisation initiated in Central Europe.

Protests against ACTA outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu/IPS.

Protests against ACTA outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. Credit: Claudia Ciobanu/IPS.

Several hundreds gathered in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw Saturday Feb. 11, for a two-hour modest protest. That was a far cry from the intense street actions that drew thousands in all major cities in Poland a little over two weeks back.

But, in a way, Polish protesters had already done their part: their own government, which had signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), postponed ratification and inaugurated a period of public debate; European Parliamentarians of various political orientations are declaring they will not ratify the treaty; and ACTA has become an issue for European debate, with coordinated demonstrations taking place on Saturday in almost every EU country.

On Feb. 11, 15,000 protested in Munich, 10,000 in Berlin, 4,000 in Sofia, 2,000 in Prague, and hundreds in other Western and Eastern European cities.

ACTA is meant to establish an international legal framework for targeting counterfeit goods, generic medicines and copyright infringement online. Critics of the act, however, argue that it is “an offensive against the sharing of culture on the Internet” and condemn the lack of public debate over such a significant treaty.

According to La Quadrature du Net (quoted above), an advocacy group defending the rights and freedoms of citizens on the Internet, “ACTA would impose new criminal sanctions forcing Internet actors to monitor and censor online communication. It is thus a major threat to freedom of expression online and creates legal uncertainty for Internet companies. In the name of trademarks and patents, it would also hamper access to generic drugs in poor countries.”

European awareness about the threats ACTA could pose was first raised when activists successfully opposed similar copyright protection acts to be applied in the U.S., such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). But opposition to ACTA catalysed on Jan. 26, when the European Union and 22 of its member states signed the act in Japan. The treaty had already been signed by eight non-EU members and it is supposed to come into force after ratification by six signatories.

The week of the signing, protests exploded in Poland. Sociologist Gavin Rae from Kozminski University of Warsaw argues that the signing of ACTA by the centre-right government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk was taken particularly hard by Poland’s educated youth for whom the Internet is “not simply an additional activity, but a means of life, where people communicate, socialise, share information, and, crucially, work.”

According to Rae, Poland’s youth had already been feeling vulnerable as well as betrayed by the country’s political class, and ACTA acted as the last straw, causing one of the most striking episodes of citizen mobilisation in post-socialist Poland.

“The recent attack on online freedom came at a time when already the country’s youth had been feeling threatened,” Rae told IPS. “Unemployment is high in Poland and a third of all Poles are working in temporary, insecure contracts – not counting the numerous ‘self-employed’. The youth is particularly affected by this ‘precariat’.”

According to 27-year old activist Piotr Bratkowski, a participant in the anti-ACTA Warsaw protests, some sections of the Polish youth might have socio-economic complaints but are not comfortable using the language of the political left to fight such battles.

Gavin Rae concurs: “The present elite in Poland never wastes an opportunity to wrap itself in the flag of the previous, anti-communist opposition movement and reminisce of the days when they had to fight for freedom. The young generation is now the guardian of such freedoms and it is turning against this elite that it deems wants to take them away.”

As a result of the Jan. 24-26 Polish protests, Tusk declared the ratification process of ACTA temporarily halted, and launched a longer period of public debate over the act, with an initial discussion gathering artists, decision-makers and the general public already taking place Feb. 7. Meanwhile, at the Feb. 11 demonstration, activists were collecting signatures to call for a referendum over ACTA. At least 500,000 signatures are needed to trigger the procedure in Poland.

National ratifications are necessary for implementation of criminal penalties included in ACTA, which fall outside the remit of EU law.

Over the first two weeks of February, other governments in Central and Eastern Europe followed Tusk’s example, in response to significant grassroots opposition to ACTA in their own countries. The Czech government has stopped the ratification process and called for a public debate, with the Latvians following suit. Slovakians, who had not signed the treaty, announced they would delay committing to ACTA. The Slovenian ambassador signing the ACTA treaty in Japan has since apologised for her “civically negligent” action.

On Feb. 10, Germany announced it would not sign until it sees the decision of the European Parliament (EP) – the first Western European government to delay adopting ACTA.

Most activists’ eyes are also turned to the EP, whose ratification scheduled for June this year is a condition for the EU-wide implementation of ACTA.

Activists from La Quadrature du Net are advising people how to contact their representatives in the various EP committees which have a say over the final vote. Meanwhile, several groups are collecting signatures in opposition to ACTA to submit to the EP, with petition site Avaaz having gathered over 2,250,000 endorsements so far.

Some EP members have already nodded in the activists’ direction – Greens and the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) have expressed opposition to the ratification, alongside EP president Martin Schultz (S&D) – although the largest group in the EP, Christian-Democrat European People’s Party (EPP), continues to be in favour of the treaty.

MEPs opposing ACTA have announced they intend to call on the European Court of Justice to weigh in on ACTA’s compatibility with EU law, a procedure that can take up to two years.

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